Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

As Margaret Mead never said…

with 2 comments

Earlier this morning, when I posted my quote of the day, I wanted to make sure that I’d transcribed it correctly. When I looked it up online, I saw that it was, in fact, correct. I also found, much to my surprise, that it had been said by Emily Dickinson, at least according to more than 8,000 web pages. Which is a little strange, because I was pretty sure that the quote was by T.S. Eliot.

Needless to say, the quote is, in fact, by Eliot, from his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here’s a bit more from the original passage:

There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. [Italics mine.]

So why do so many web pages insist that the quote is by Emily Dickinson? It isn’t hard to understand: Eliot, while a great poet and essayist, was a less than lovable human being, while Dickinson is a fascinating figure whose life makes us wish that she’d said something like this. The quote is simply more interesting, in a superficial way, when attributed to Dickinson, much as a vague platitude from an unknown author becomes a moral gem when attributed to, say, Thoreau or Mark Twain. Which brings us to the following Rule of Internet Quotation:

An appealing quote attributed to a famous dead person on the Internet is almost certainly bogus.

Corollary 1: This is especially the case if the alleged source is a famous dead author more admired than read.

Corollary 2: The more a quote seems to justify the reader’s cherished personal, political, or spiritual beliefs, the more bogus it probably is.

And I’ve run into this issue before. A few weeks ago, I wanted to quote what is perhaps the most famous writing aphorism of all time: “You must murder all your darlings.” I was pretty sure that Faulkner had said it, but when I checked, it turned out that the line had been variously attributed to Faulkner, Orwell, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and countless others. The actual source, not surprisingly, is none of the above: it’s the much less famous Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here’s the original quote, from his book On the Art of Writing:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetuate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings.

This is incredibly useful advice. Every writer should hang it above his or her desk. But it’s a lot less interesting coming from Sir Arthur than, say, from Hemingway. (Or Dickinson.)

Which brings us to what is possibly the most widely cited quotation on the entire Internet. If you don’t have it as your email signature, you almost certainly have a friend who does. It is, of course, the famous quote by Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Now, that’s one hell of a good quotation. There’s only one problem: Margaret Mead never said it. At least, no one can prove that she has—which is, or should be, almost the same thing. It doesn’t appear in any of her published books, letters, speeches, or interviews. Even Mead’s own institute, which has the quote on its masthead, admits it has no idea where it comes from. The most The Quote Verifier can say is that the quote is “possibly Margaret Mead, in conversation or a speech.” But no original source has ever been found.

In the absence of a real, verified source, the Margaret Mead quotation needs to be retired as apocryphal, however appealing its sentiments might be. (It’s also worth pointing out that the second sentence, which doesn’t always appear in the quoted text, is demonstrably false.) Bottom line: If words matter, then who said them matters, too. So always verify your quotes. Because you should never doubt that a large group of well-meaning people on the Internet can mangle a quotation. (Though it’s far from the only thing that ever has.)

(Addendum: It appears that a similar process is already taking place, in record time, with regard to Richard C. Holbrooke’s last words.)

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2010 at 10:48 am

2 Responses

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  1. “This is great.” –Eric Simons

    Eric

    December 15, 2010 at 12:04 pm

  2. Thanks for the blurb! (Mind if I attribute it to Michiko Kakutani?)

    nevalalee

    December 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm


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